One very common peeve that I often see out there, which always prompts great gnashing of my teeth, is when I see people rant (particularly in Amazon reviews), “What was the editor DOING!!! I found TWO TYPOS.” This is due to confusion about editing vs. copyediting.
Editing vs. copyediting
Just so’s we’re all clear:
In traditional publishing, the editor is the person who acquires the book for the publishing company. The editor then becomes like a project manager, shepherding the book through the publishing process.
Yes, this does usually involve some editing. But that is usually on the order of, “let’s beef up this plot arc,” “how about this title,” and “do you think you could get me some backstage passes to your concert? Please? My wife is a big fan.” The editor may point individual things out, but the editor is not spending their time correcting typos. Not their job!
There are also freelance developmental editors who help authors who help authors who are self-publishing or who want to improve their manuscript prior to pursuing traditional publishing.
Then there is a copyeditor, the person who is responsible for catching typos.
A copyeditor is the type of person who will point out to a police officer that the charge for speeding in a school zone is actually $75, not $50… while they are getting a ticket. They not only know more grammatical rules and alternate spellings than nearly anyone, but they LOVE IT. A copyeditor prays to whatever manual of style they personally believe in (and yes, there is more than one religion).
So it’s the copyeditor who is the one responsible for catching typos and small inconsistencies and factual errors. Not the editor.
Typos are ultimately an author’s responsibility
But before you go and amend the complaint to “What was the COPYeditor doing,” here’s how the editing and copyediting process works (actual process may vary, but this is one example):
- Author turns in manuscript.
- Editor suggests macro changes.
- Author turns in new manuscript.
- Goes to copyeditor.
- A fantastic copyeditor will catch nearly everything, or everything everything.
- First pass pages go to the author, who double-checks the copyeditor’s suggested changes.
- Now, here comes the fun part. Manuscript is assembled so that the line edits from the author, copyeditor, and editor are hopefully incorporated correctly. It’s a somewhat straightforward task, but sometimes new errors can enter the picture here.
- Author gets these second-pass pages, they try to catch any remaining (or introduced) errors, and once they sign off on them the book goes to press.
Hopefully by the time it’s gone from editor to copyeditor to first pass to person who knows where to second pass every error will have been found and corrected. Hopefully. But there are also opportunities for errors to creep into that process.
Oh, and for the record, before you start correcting typos on this blog, keep in mind that I have neither editor nor copyeditor. (But this blog is, in fact, outsourced to overseas typists. Not really.)
So when you do find a typo in a book, gloat! By all means gloat. Gloat gloat gloat. You found a typo and are officially smarter than the offending sentence. But don’t blame the poor editor!
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Art: Leo Tolstoy by Nikolai Ge
I used to work in graphic design and I used to be the person who typed the copy before the ad went to a four-color web press and they made ten million copies of the thing.
Nothing slips by me. NOTHING. Am I a little nuts? I’d have to answer in the affirmative.
And then there’s the technical editor/reviewer for tech non-fiction (reference manuals and the like).
I’ve been lucky enough to work with all these levels in the past. Editors I’ve never had a problem with. But man, working with people who (a) can back up their gripes about my dashes and semi-colons with COMMON SENSE, and/or (b) insist that “no book about topic X is complete unless it mentions Y” — and are right about that, d*mn it — well, that can drive a writer’s ego right off the cliff. 🙂
Kate H says
As one of the people who griped about grammar, etc. yesterday, let me say that I am an editor with a VERY small house, and I do everything from acquisitions to proofreading– sometimes even layout. If there’s an error in one of our books, it’s my fault, period. So I tend to get sloppy about the distinctions. My apologies to all the macro editors out there.
Nathan, Austexgrl – I was curious about that ‘alliteration’ dig myself. I immediately thought, oh no, is that offlimits now?
Maya Reynolds says
The copyediting was the favorite part of the process for me. I was fascinated by the things my copyeditor picked up–things my editor and I had completely missed. Teeny, tiny little continuity things.
And I learned an important lesson when my pages came back from typesetting. I found an error that turned an ordinary word into an obscene word–in the middle of an important scene.
Man, did I read those pages more carefully after that. And in total I found five “introduced” errors.
So Nathan’s right; it isn’t always the author or the editor or the copyeditor. Of course, since the book is mine, I figure the buck stops with me.
Steve Stubbs says
Here is an interesting article which explains what copy editors (apparently they call them subeditors in England) do and how they are (dis)regarded by writers:
Apparently the writer in question is an editor’s delight.
Adaora A. says
Meanwhile, as I try to restrain myself from pointing out that some people misspelled the word “typo” as they were complaining about typos in the last thread (oops! too late!), one very common peeve that I often see out there, which always prompts great gnashing of my teeth, is when I see people rant (particularly in Amazon reviews), “What was the editor DOING!!! I found TWO TYPOS.”
And I don’t even know if that’s fate telling people to not be so hot under the collar or knickers twisting about it. You unintentionally become the one living in a glass house, which is throwing stones.
Oh man, we’ve all seen it. I can be such a spaz about it that I’ll circle it, sticky note it, and show it to my twin sister. Yes, I’m cool like that. But seriously, things do get lost in translation. So maybe people really get so excessively in the CPs face about it.
Tracey S. Rosenberg says
I’m currently reading a paperback from the 1960s, and a previous reader has corrected all the typos in pencil.
I have to admit to being guilty of one such action – and in a library book, too – but in Donald Maass’s mostly amazing Writing the Breakout Novel, he refers to something ‘public’ but leaves out the l. In this case, I did not so much ‘correct’ as ‘write an exclamation point in the margin.’
I like to think of it as creating a dialogue with future readers.
R. A. Mare says
I've done pretty much everything: writing, substantive & line editing, proofreading. Right now I'm a magazine copy editor. Yes, a lot of people are involved in the process of publishing, whether it's magazines, newspapers, or books, and designers can mistype things, etc., and I know that I do miss thing sometimes, but the number of really, really bad grammatical and word usage mistakes I see in print is still appalling to me. I mean, doesn't *anybody* know what a dangling modifier is anymore? I think that even macro editors ought to. Even if it's not their responsibility to fix that kind of thing, one can hope they're savvy enough to hire the people who will.
::: cracks knuckles :::
Here’s the various kinds of editors you will find in a publishing house:
The Acquiring Editor, aka The Editor: buys your book and becomes your advocate in-house with everyone from the marketing and publicity people to the sales department and even the production department. S/he will also do what is usually called “developmental editing” – working on plot and structure and theme with the author to make it a better book overall. A fair number of them also do substantial line editing (different from copyediting), where they will go line by line in your book to look for ways to improve sentence structure, grammar, etc.
The Managing Editor: A managing editor doesn’t edit per se; instead, s/he controls the entire process of getting the manuscript ready for publication. S/he is the master planner, working with the editor and publisher on release date, making sure the manuscript is handed in with sufficient time to be properly copyedited and proofread, assigns projects to the proofreaders and copyeditors, and sometimes will do light copyediting on projects as well. A managing editor also makes sure that each subsequent version (first pass pages, second pass pages and in rae cases, third pass pages) of the manuscript is sent to the author for double-checking.
FYI, depending upon the publisher and the time alloted, a “galley” or “advanced readers copy” is produced after first pass. This is why there are so many mistakes. This is also why every galley known to man says in big bold letters “DO NOT QUOTE FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT CHECKING AGAINST FINISHED BOOK FIRST”. Sometimes, if an author has a habit of coming in with a very clean manuscript and the editor trusts him/her, a galley will be produced before any changes are made. Galleys need to be ready ideally five to six months before publication for promotional and marketing purposes, and for sell-in.
The Copyeditor: also goes line by line and not only looks for mistakes in grammar or discontinuity (especially important if the author writes series fiction), s/he will also look for things that a writer might never think about such as use of copyright (Xerox is a copyrighted term and is not interchangeable with photocopier – if you use it, a copyeditor will correct it). Great copyeditors are worth their weight in gold. Deanna Hoak is one of the very best and keeps a blog where she sometimes writes about the copyediting process.
The Proofreader: different than a copyeditor; they look specifically for mistakes in grammar and punctuation. Sometimes, at smaller houses, proofreading and copyediting are done by the same person.
The Production Editor: works on actually making the book, pricing and buying the paper, costing out the galleys, making sure that the manuscript makes it to the typesetter and eventually that the typeset copy makes it to the bindery.
Yes, it takes a village to publish a book.
I’m sure I’ve forgotten an editor or two, but, well, there you have it. Hope that was helpful.
Steve, re sub-editors, or affectionately called ‘subbies’ in Australia, I understand that in the newspaper world they are responsible for the story headline. [I’m sure someone in the industry will correct me if I’m wrong.] Many headlines are attempts at wit, and end up real groaners. We often catch out stories that are misleading in terms of story quotes or headlines, go back to the journalist with whom the interview took place, and find out that the subbie has taken it upon him/herself to cut or change the story, usually for space reasons, and mucked up the concept so much that the story is laughable to those who are aware of the issue, often technology. So not only is it important for an editor, particularly in non-fiction, to have writing skills, but knowledge about current knowledge, trends, and policies or else the story can come out backwards.
Pages missing in a finished book has nothing to do with the editor or copyeditor; it’s purely a technical glitch at the bindery, and it happens in almost every print run of any book. If you return it to the bookstore or publisher, you’ll usually get your money back.
Diana Gabaldon says
A good copyeditor is a pearl beyond price. They find typos (a decent writer does not, of course, commit errors of grammar, spelling or punctuation out of ignorance), they notice that you have used the word “prestidigitation” three times in one paragraph and call this to your attention, and they notice (most of the time) that while you began a scene with people drinking tea, the butler is carrying out the brandy glasses at the end of the party, with no bottle having been introduced in the meantime.
An alert copyeditor will also ask astute questions, such as, “Were there landmines in 1752?” (This, in query to a metaphor in which a character—in 1752–freezes as though he’s suddenly realized he’s standing on a landmine.) (And yes, they did indeed have landmines in 1752, in case you were wondering).
They are not–or freaking well shouldn’t be–messing with the author’s sentences. (I have a rubber stamp that says “STET!” for such occasions, but have luckily not needed to employ it for the last several novels, having lately been blessed with one of the pearls of the profession. ‘Twas not always so.)
If someone were to start substituting his/her own choice of words–let alone rewriting my sentences–I would hunt said person down and stamp him or her with “STET!” from head to toe.
A copyeditor’s job (and a valuable one it is) is to detect any possible error and draw it to the author’s attention; not to rewrite the author’s stuff.
2B or not 2B?
Nathan: "In an e-book era, it is no longer be necessary…"
Here we have an example of the future crashing into the present as Nathan revises his blog… he can't decide if the e-book era is coming or already here.. and decides it's already here… so changes from 'will no longer be necessary' to 'is no longer (be) necessary'.
Copyeditor to Nathan: Kill 'be' or change 'is' back to to 'will'.
I'm searching for input as to which manual of style a writer of literary fiction ought to memorize. APA? MLA? Chicago? Which do major fiction sellers prefer?
Bryce Main says
Thanks Nathan for this helpful post. I have been a copywriter for many years (and an author for a lot less)…and I have found that many writers have 'blind spots' when it comes to literals etc. It's almost as if the subconscious brain corrects as it goes along…sees what it expects to see…without any permission from the conscious brain. Thank heaven for proofreaders!!!
Oh man oh man, outsourcing offshore… This just happened to me. We did the copyedit stage, all looked well, it was sent to be typeset and came back with upwards of a dozen weird little errors on each page. Commas sprinkled everywhere like candy, line-breaks in the oddest spots, and insertion of articles where none belonged ("this is cause for concern" becomes "this is the cause for concern.") What? Who? Why? How? I am pulling out all my hair.
This post was most helpful. thanks a lot.
First and foremost, AUTHOR is responsible.
I love your writing style. Your article was extremely informative and made me smile and laugh in several places. This is a great piece. Thank you so much for taking the time to educate us!
Thanks so much for posting this. I'm trying to start a freelance copyediting business and my friends just don't get it. They say, "Oh yeah, proofreading." My response, though not quite correct, usually clears it up. I say, "Proofreaders make sure the final product is exactly the same as the manuscript. Copyeditors make sure that it isn't."